Lee Klein - An intricately layered debut novel that manages to reorganize the landscapes of conception, birth, death, Heaven and New Jersey. Klein leads the reader to a ledge of unbelievability and dares the reader to believe... and then he pushes you off that ledge. Giggling


Lee Klein, The Shimmering Go-Between: A Novel, 2014.

An OMG exploration of WTF . . . If Willful Suspension of Disbelief were a race in the literary Olympics, this moving and luminous debut would set the record. If this novel were edible, it’d be less like a plate of meat than an inside-out eel roll atop a Russian doll.
Set at the dawn of the Internet age, this imaginatively unhinged yet formally controlled contemporary fable dramatizes the struggle between impulsivity and restraint. A sort of semi-perverted post-YA novel, The Shimmering Go-Between is about . . . Hot air balloons! Terraria! Goop storms! Never has a semi-illustrated story about longing, loss, and love been so good-natured, inventive, and insane.

“A moving, modern meditation on loss and renewal, The Shimmering Go-Between is recommended for readers who want innovation and whimsy without losing the heart and soul that makes a story resonate long after it’s been read.” – Foreword Reviews

Any review of Lee Klein’s intricately layered debut novel The Shimmering Go-Between (Atticus Books, 2014) will be an exercise in restraint. The publisher, you see, has requested that reviewers avoid spoilers. Well, apart from giggling for 700 words, I’m not sure how I’ll pull off a spoiler-free introduction of this surprising, and surprisingly believable, story—but here we go . . .
On one of its many levels The Shimmering Go-Between is a love story: love between a man and a woman, a man and himself, the outer man and the inner man, the big man and the little woman or rather women in this case. And then there’s Brad Pitt.
Before you dive into this story—and I’d suggest doing this from a hot air balloon without a parachute—it may (not) help to reread Little Women, rent Beetlejuice and perhaps purchase some grooming products for your beard. This is very much a beardy story, and you’ll probably want to give yours a good scrub when it’s all over. It gets messy.
While this daring narrative begins with Dolores, a remarkably and immaculately fertile character, the story is ultimately overtaken by beardy-man Wilson, whose search for love within and beyond himself can only be described as all-consuming. His approach to love involves mainly putting things in his mouth. The consumption-as-love theme cannot be stressed enough here, and then there’s Brad Pitt.
On yet another level, this story is also very much about The Woman: woman as drug, aphrodisiac, innocent, object, pet and, for lack of a better word, snack. Yes, snack. But also as Goddess, Supreme Mother and doughy office worker. The whole SHEbang, if you will. While I’m sure a few feminists will want to buy some grooming products for their hackles, the motif of The Woman here as (see all the above) is at the center of a bigger picture: the cycle of life—slightly revised.
The Shimmering Go-Between manages to reorganize the landscapes of conception, birth, death, Heaven and New Jersey. If we created a diorama of the cycle of life so prominent in this book, we’d see The Woman as gushing spring, as prolific creator, but we’d also see The Man as kangaroo-like father and gatekeeper of Heaven and Hell. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say it all breaks loose. The first few pages of the book let you know that anything goes in this narrative.
The novel’s title, taken from a Nabokov quote, gives us some insight into what Klein is doing here: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall tale, there is a shimmering go-between.” The “go-between” is the art of literature or the place where belief and disbelief overlap. Being asked to believe the unbelievable, in the words of Wilson, is “like being told you’re a werewolf when you’ve never once awoken with a mouthful of chicken feathers.” It’s almost like being told you can Wile E. Cyote to the bottom of the canyon, hit the ground at 100 mph and crawl out of the Wile E.-shaped crater with only the slightest of headaches. Klein leads the reader to a ledge of unbelievability and dares the reader to believe. Isn’t this exactly what magic realism should do? Klein does it so well . . . and then he pushes you off that ledge. Giggling.
The Shimmering Go-Between is also a story about a man’s struggle to find a place for the wreckage of his life. There are rumblings—mistakes made, codes ignored, good intentions—in these pages. There are mountains to be moved. There is Brad Pitt. There is the rose-scented air of “pure fragrant thought” and a looming foulness—in essence the battle between chaos and order, but also the hope of reshaping, reordering and recycling life. To tell you any more would be to spoil it. - Christopher Allen

The dedication of Lee Klein’s The Shimmering Go-Between, published this August by Atticus Press, is to “everyone who has ever suffered from disbelief,” which gives a hint that the book that will lope baldly through the unbelievable.
As in, the story starts with an immaculate conception by a 12-year-old, moves into a plot about gelatinous little people who appear in a man’s facial hair after he has sex, and then enters an afterlife where people live in a town inside the man with the gummy-bear beard, committing recreational suicide by hot-air-balloon.
It’s so inventive that it almost works—or is an interesting failure, at least.
Klein has a unique voice, a combination of surreal and twee that’s not quite like anything else I’ve read. He bestows strange adventures on ordinary young office workers, denizens of minor cities. He brilliantly inhabits a space between pretty and icky.  Here, for example, is our hero, Wilson Amon, eating one of the little ladies who appear in his beard:
“One of the larger women, her features more defined, was stunning, really beautiful. Before he realized what was happening, he had her on his fingertip, admiring her beneath a desk lamp. A gorgeous creature. A living pearl with womanly curves. There was something perfect about her size, her proportions: she was only hours old, a newborn, yet already looked like a woman, no larger than the digit on which she stood. He wondered what she’d taste like. He popped her in his mouth. Just by pressing his tongue to her, he savored a delicate milky flavor. Like white chocolate. Or a thin slice of mozzarella.”
With voice alone Klein is changing the rules. Once you have a person with a “delicate milky flavor” like “white chocolate” or “a thin slice mozzarella,” and you’re ok with that person getting eaten…. you have no earthly idea where you are. And there’s good tension is in wanting to know. I was ready to absorb book-logic, and not let my expectations on murder or cannibalism disturb the narrative.
That was especially true once The Internet entered the picture, in the third chapter, with a website called autofellator.com (run by Wilson, who can suck his own dick and does so on web-cam, strangely chastely). We moderns are used to spending time in the worlds of the unreal online. I was willing to link up Klein’s fantasia with virtual reality, and to read the “world” within Wilson where the dead people live as metaphor for the Internet. The mystery of the little women—something strange that propagates indirectly with sexual connection—felt fruitful.
There are many lovely turns of phrase—an ugly chandelier is “an eternally airborne octopus of ice;” the women long to “transform into a marble, and collapse into rose-smelling mist.” But The Shimmering Go-Between is poorly written. The problem with “anything can happen” is that nothing matters when it does, and when a writer takes those risks, he or she needs exceptional scruple in other areas to keep the reader interested. Klein simply can’t get away with a narration that’s tell-not-show, or with the endless explanation and re-explanation of the plot. It’s bad writing on the craft level. Here’s a typical piece of heavy-handed plot-summary-as-dialog that should be indicative of the problems:
“So you slept with one of those mysterious naked women and then melded consciousness with Wilson and assumed control of his body and then slept with a woman named Delores and then ate some tiny women and then returned here to swallow a goop-covered marble that had been the woman you’d slept with just a little while ago?” asked Rue. “Have I got that right?”
The reader does not have it right. With all the people living inside other people, possessing other people, and using more than one name for various characters, by the end of the book I’d forgotten or maybe never knew the identity of the first-person narrator. I think it’s the nameless goop-covered marble, from inside “Brad Pitt” from inside Wilson, but I’m not sure. Passages like the following do nothing to clear it up:
“Being in Rue, wasn’t nearly as wonderful as being in Wilson or even in Brad Pitt. A lot of it probably had to do with the fact that Rue was dead. Plus, this was also around the time she’d stopped tutoring Brad Pitt, and it was clear his carousing caused her some pain. … Plus, what also detracted from my experience within her was that each time I returned to her body she seemed to have lost some elasticity, and this, as she tried to reason her way through her chronically exacerbated brittleness—combined with envious tension—made Rue much less fun, in terms of controlling, than Wilson or Brad Pitt.”
The internal state being described, from “chronically exacerbated brittleness” to “envious tension” just makes no sense. the writing is chewy, the “plus”s add up ominously, and we have no idea who is describing their experience or why we care.
I stuck it through to the end hoping for an ah-ha moment that never came. The echos of characters longing for their own annihilation (women who want to be eaten, people who suck their own cocks, people who jump from balloons….) feel relevant, but the author doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.
Klein’s wrap-up is a typically explain-y passage declaring that Wilson “felt like his capacity for affection had been caught up in his computer monitor, like a runaway puppy found frozen in a lake…. It became clear he needed to turn himself toward something outside the screen, someone beyond the confines of self.”
At that point I just woefully laughed at the cliché that we can turn away from the screen, and that good old hetero affection is the cure of over-mediation….  Like, this is an insight we can get from women’s magazines or New York Times editorials. Surely I didn’t read this whole book for this? - ananthologyofclouds.com/2014/10/29/the-shimmering-go-between-by-lee-klein/

Upon finishing Lee Klein’s colorful debut novel The Shimmering Go-Between, I felt the simultaneous delight and relief of having just exited a multifarious fun house. This particular house belongs to a woman named Dolores who has quite an interesting secret. Sometimes it’s referred to as an STD, other times it is an unexplained phenomenon she calls Immaculate Conception Syndrome, but during intercourse with bearded men, our protagonist has the unique ability to produce micro-women: living, breathing female human beings no larger than a human tooth. What started as mysterious and rapid conception before she had ever even kissed a boy turned Dolores’ overly fertile body into a physiological oddity that plants nits in her boyfriends’ beards. After having three abortions as a virgin, she vowed to keep herself hidden from men for fear that fraternizing would likely make matters worse.

But Dolores’ commitment to being off the market only makes her more desirable; her refusal to date turns her into an “unlikely grail.” She becomes a projection of Nabokov’s Lolita – coveted for the wrong reasons, fueled by the temptations of the forbidden fruit. Her namesake even evokes Lolita, whose given name was Dolores. Shimmering’s Dolores is even nicknamed Lo and Lolo by her mother early in the story. (The book’s epigraph is by Nabokov, after all.)
It is Klein’s details that made getting lost in this absurdist plot more and more enjoyable, and his characterization of Dolores is so curious and heartbreaking – her habits: keeping secondhand photo albums in her dorm to pretend those pictured are her real family, black coffee in the a.m. and Guinness at night, a persistent Flyers jersey – that I couldn’t help but identify with dear Lo, like encountering those first funhouse mirrors, surrounded by distorted reflections of yourself with the only option being to carry on.
Dolores finally gives into lust during college to an endearing fellow named Max, who responds rather well to the finding of post-coital nits living on his face. These nits turn into miniature women with whom they have great fun – sending them off in tiny globes and rafts to inhabit the world outside. They were parents in a sense, encouraging their spawn to live freely. But as college romances often do, theirs ends when he decides to spend a few years living abroad while she settles down with her cat named Conan and a safe editorial job. It’s at her workplace, though, that we meet another compelling man named Wilson with whom she eventually shares her world. But Wilson has equally dark secrets, including a dead wife that lives on inside his body, a side project called autofellator.com, and a taste for the minute women, often consuming them after their arrival in his beard:
He seemed to come to life at night to perform a task that—though not loving or romantic or intimate or virtuosic—did more for her than anything achieved in her most amorous hours with Conan. Vaguely, she suspected a connection between Wilson’s visits and his little women noshing, but she preferred to put off analysis until she’d replenished her supply of human contact. For now, it was fine if he acted like some sort of Zombie Don Juan. One day maybe he’d snap out of his nocturnal love trance and be her no-nonsense, old-fashioned, seemingly human boyfriend.
The relationship between Dolores and Wilson is never pretty. It doesn’t come with flowers and chocolates or indie cinema and a vegan restaurant; it comes with blackmail and atypical porn subscriptions and terrariums filled with penny-sized people. The worlds of the novel begin to stack up and multiply, eclipsing each other to the point where you’re not sure who’s swallowing whom, who’s living in what body, or whose existence is dependent upon another. And this is what I love about Dolores and Wilson. They are the epitome of an odd couple – underdogs that you don’t think will pull through but somehow manage to find solace in each other’s peculiar issues. They aren’t crazy per se, just perverse and lonely yet highly intelligent humans that have lost the ones they loved and haven’t found that same bond since. Who can’t empathize with that loss? Dolores and Wilson are merely trying to rehabilitate their hearts.
Rebirth is a recurrent theme in The Shimmering Go-Between, from the visceral stench of Wilson’s afterbirth of little people escaping through his belly button to the motif of the mountain that Rue, Wilson’s dead wife, instructs him to build:
If the city made something from its ruins it’d give everyone who climbed it an understanding of, I don’t know, how to use our wreckage, maybe? Use it instead of just letting everything crappy that’s ever happened infect everything that’s ever been good?
Max becomes an integral part in this mountain-building as he’s now the mayor of Trenton, and in an unlikely shift of power, Wilson bribes him into approving the project after finding Polaroids of Max and Dolores and those impossibly small women. Not wanting the threat of scandal to affect his political career, Max agrees and they begin building.
The Shimmering Go-Between will appeal to fans of Kafka and Nabakov as readily as it will to fans of Chuck Palahniuk and Etgar Keret. With impeccable prose, Klein juggles a variety of extreme personalities and viewpoints, switching narrative perspective with ease, always leaving the reader with unforgettable images, as in the opening scene of a prepubescent Dolores who’s decided to place a cooled light bulb in her mouth, wondering what it’d feel like if she bit down.
And like the Ouroboros depicted on the book’s cover, Klein’s characters are self-reflexive, literally and metaphorically. The serpent symbolizes new beginnings just as much as it represents Wilson’s e-commerce activity and the self-creation of women barely big enough to see. Wilson’s habit of eating them reinforces this convoluted circle that is life, and the people living inside him serve as reminders that you cannot escape your past, but that you must live with it, through it, and in spite of it, construct something new with what remains. - Brittany Harmon

This book doesn’t want me to spoil it for you. It says so on the back. It says: “All we can say is: please, no spoilers.” It recently occurred to me that the whole thing about spoilers is that they pretty much constitute a gag on critical discussion of narrative in public. This happened at an academic conference panel on ‘sitting with uncomfortable ideas’ in which a popular Netflix series was raised as a point of intersection between two complex ideas and was met with literal screams of “No Spoilers! Please!” and the discussion instantly and by consensus ceased entirely. As someone who’d seen the series in question and was mourning the lost opportunity to triangulate a rather disjointed conversation, I turned to my friend and said, “can you imagine that happening in a discussion of English Literature?”
When browsing haphazardly online not long after I found a piece by Anne Carson on Albertine and read myself slap, bang, into a big fat spoiler for the fifth volume of Remembrance of Things Past. I’ll admit, I reeled a bit, I figured that was what I got for tempting fate, sure — OK. So I got over it. I’ve been slowly savouring Proust for several years now. It occurred to me that if I stopped eking it out I could read it again all the sooner. I wonder at the total hours involved and then think about how many times I’ve re-watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. When I find, a couple of weeks later, the no spoilers plea on the back of my review copy of Lee Klein’s The Shimmering Go-Between, I figure that the theory really does need testing. To privilege surprise and suspense in spectatorship in this way is, for me, to reject the value of the possibility of critical distance, to render sacred the immersive entertainment value of story and perhaps most significantly to devalue the potential of re-reading. In other words: if all ‘they’ can say is: don’t review this book, I’m up for it.
Inevitably, I have so much to say about it, even if I’m only supposed to give away as much as the back cover itself does. To its credit, though off-puttingly chirpy in a manner that can only be achieved by internet memes put self-consciously to use as marketing, the jacket text is an object lesson in giving the prospective reader or reviewer a framework that can be worked with without needing to go into narrative ‘spoiling’ detail. The precaution against spoilers does conceptually complement the novel’s claims for itself as being concerned with disbelief, as its press release disingenuously claims: “An OMG exploration of WTF . . . If Willful Suspension of Disbelief were a race in the literary Olympics, this moving and luminous debut would set the record.” OMG and WTF are of course both expressions of disbelief but the choice to use netspeak acronyms rather than full phrases is almost cynical in its attempt to be down with the kids. Similarly, the whole idea of spoilers (a phenomenon born of the need to organise spectacle and text in new ways as a result of new technologies of viewing and consumption) appeals to a public assumed to be more inclined to watch serial television rather than pick up a novel and, additionally, as far as ‘forewarned is forearmed,’ approaching this novel knowing what happens might tip the reader beyond disbelief into outright suspicion.
Avoidance of spoilers aside, it is difficult to review autofiction. It’s taken over a year for the angry blog post the last guy I reviewed badly wrote to sink beneath the first page of a google search for my name. Perhaps more accurately I might say that it is difficult to review fiction in which an aspect of autobiography is acknowledged, or perhaps indeed since I hope that this is the case to some extent with all fiction I might, even more accurately, just say, straight up, that it is difficult to review fiction in times such as ours. In times, that is, in which the nature of selves as subject and object in relation to text is so very precarious and troubled, when written words have become simultaneously so much less individually meaningful and so much more powerful in their proliferation and potential. It is difficult precisely because I don’t wish to fall into the trap of attacking a fellow writer and, one must assume, reader — of creating a text that, like so many troll formulations responds to theirs in a way that treats them only as abstractions and belies their existence as contingencies. Though this book in many ways enraged me, my intention is to respond usefully and without hate for persons fictional or otherwise (indeed, in this day and age is there any person entirely non-fictional?).
If fiction is such unstable, volatile stuff, how to begin to speak of it, ever? There are a lot of people involved in any given reading of any given book. Writer, reader, and book itself, each, in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari’s “quite a crowd,” already many, already multiple all the way down. The author and the characters that they have created, in all their fractal relations, the reader and the characters as she reads them and all the associations she makes as she goes, other characters in other books. The Dolores that many know better as Nabakov’s Lolita, the Dolores she was when I read her and the Dolores she was when Lee Klein read her. The Dolores that Klein has written, his Dolores as I read her here, with Nabokov’s Lo a constant shadow somewhere just at the periphery of my thoughts — young girls in constant bloom.
Such interrelations are the inspiration for the narrative structure of The Shimmering Go Between. The meta-relationships between lives and dreams and memories literalised as narrative. When people die they go to live in worlds inside the stomachs of people who knew them and they can choose whoever’s inside is preferable to them. The worlds are created out of the living person’s memories and understanding of the deceased. In the words of the jacket, the book is “a peculiar concoction of inside-out eel roll and Russian doll topped with a George Saunders/Charlie Kaufman crème fraiche.” This is almost literally true, though the effect is that the already many-ness of fiction is reduced to an exercise in never-ending mixed metaphors. Klein’s title is a reference to Nabokov and a longer version of the quote opens the book, “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between.” Left out is Nabokov’s explication of that image: “That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” This is a book, then, that is named, metaphorically, for no less than literature itself. This book defines the terms on which it is to be discussed and in so doing, refuses the possibility of allowing the reader a diversity of entry points. One must start at the beginning and end at the end, refusing all possibility of going back and approaching the text with prior knowledge.
By its (its meaning whomever the we with which the back of the book describes its selves is) own admission, The Shimmering Go Between is a “good natured tale about love, longing, and loss.” This I will allow is an accurate description in that its intentions seem conventionally “good” and it seems to enjoy itself and to intend itself to be enjoyed. If good intentions can, that is, be ascertained by a playfulness of text and a happy families ending. Certainly this story, like many of its kind, contains love, longing, and loss, but these tags are too broad to be very useful. I begin to reach for the spoilers. The Shimmering Go Between is lively, to the extent that self-awareness is its subject matter, very self aware, reflexive — yes — and makes much use of metanarrative. But Brechtian it ain’t. Though it literally contains selves, matryoshka-like within selves, worlds within worlds, and stories within stories, the one story not in the frame is mine, the reader’s.
I am unable to avoid the linear causality of the text, this begets that, that begets another, this represents that, that represents another. It’s a chain of metaphors hung on each other in a Möbius strip that is neatly constructed but inherently empty because the referents lead nowhere except back to each other. This works in Alice in Wonderland because that text has such a rich and playful relation to language but also, importantly, precisely because Alice is categorically not Lewis Carroll. The relation of Klein’s protagonist to Klein is, I’m afraid, in this case, a major problem. That the book is about literature makes it impossible not to see the protagonist as an image of the author, his generativity as a metaphor for Klein’s writing and eventually his understanding of fatherhood. I am forced here into the position of a reading that will only ever really work the first time. Perhaps I’m only saying that because I don’t want to read it again, but the ban on spoilers itself suggests that to read it again will be a diminished experience.
Not being permitted to suspend disbelief, to question what I’m reading, or to draw my own connections between the elements of this story because they are drawn for me and there’s no sense to be made any other way, no going back through or around. The psychedelic effect of all these daisy chained mixed metaphors taking themselves literally, weirdly reinforces the linearity of the tale. The thing with metaphor is that it’s always a placeholder, a costume something else is dressed up in. It’s not that there’s even a big twist — perhaps the whole no spoilers thing is a bluff, you keep reading in expectation of the twist and yet the end is straight as hell. Roland Barthes once wrote in defence of the deflowered text, of re-reading, and I am reminded, powerfully, of that here. No spoilers, right, but deflowering is a big issue in this story. Gender creeps in.
This is a “(not-so-autobiographical) novel,” in which, as with much fiction, whether avowedly auto- or not, whichever character with whom the narrative at any given moment rests is the author, the subject, and all other characters are metaphors for something the author is conceptually appropriating. (It doesn’t have to be this way, there are authors who extend to all of their characters the possibility of realisation; they do this by abandoning the idea of the singular heroic, masculine, universalising protagonist.) The idea of fertility (as in you have a lot of ideas and you want to put them outside of yourself, obviously — not as in a child growing inside of you) is introduced at the start of the novel in the form of a description of Dolores, a girl aged 12–13ish who gets pregnant three months in a row and has to have three abortions and go on the pill. This is dealt with in, like, two pages and is entirely instrumentalised by the fact of it being a key plot point that this kid is hyper-fertile, female interiorities serving as metaphors for male ones.
What made her pregnant three times in three months without ever having been near a potential father? you ask. Why? How? Well this is “an exploration of WTF? OMG!” Somehow the possible reasons for these occurrences preclude the possibility of examining disbelief — or something. So they are never explained. You know, it’s like the Virgin Mary. She’s carrying God’s child, she’s a muse, and that’s such a miracle that she must sacrifice all agency and interiority. Soon a male protagonist will appear who will need that interiority more, as there isn’t enough to go round (the self can’t be many — all personhood must be metaphorically subordinated to the singular subject writing itself). Klein’s Dolores is made to represent some aspect of the greater interiority of the author.
I thought the book would be about her, was glad to open the book to a twelve-year-old girl, looked forward to reading a post-young adult novel with a twelve-year-old protagonist named after Lolita. My disappointment on realizing, as the narrative fast forwards into Dolores’ late thirties, through a lifetime of her self-imposed celibacy (and study, which comes to nothing except a safe job where she finally meets the protagonist), the inner life she so far lacked was never going to manifest for this character. Her first lover comes and goes in college, having served as the reveal for the weirdness Dolores’ hyper-fertility manifests as now that she is safely on the pill. When men sleep with her they wake up in the morning with little tiny naked women in their beards (unless they shave, I don’t know why, it isn’t ever explained, it might be because when she was twelve she considered eating a light bulb and then fell off her bike and bloodied both her knees). Obviously the little women are both naked and beautiful.
As a life long Alcott fan I was excited about the prospect of where this pun might go but alas, I waited in vain. That guy eventually freaks out that his association with her might damage his future political career and leaves her to more years of self-denial and solitude. It’s inside Dolores’ second lover, Wilson, whom she meets after a decade of office work, that the second and third layers of story are both borne and born. It is he who realises the mysteries of love and life and longing. It is he who both the matryoshka and the Ouroboros of the cover refer to. It is he who eventually finds resolution and meaning in his marriage to Dolores, in fathering their child and in monetising the little women created every time they fuck. For no other reason than that this is how she is written, Dolores is OK with this.
The big spoiler is, after all, that Dolores is just a place for Wilson’s genius to gestate itself away until it’s ready to emerge from the womb of narrative into some kind of “semi-perverted post-young-adult” thirty-something clarity, aka fatherhood. Ouroboros, the snake eating itself, is the hermetic symbol of cyclical recreation. Fatherhood is when the crazy absurdist randomness of the world reveals itself to you as Everything Making Sense and you get to write sense down to explain it to another Thing You’ve Made. Fatherhood is a state in which you get an attic wunderkammer in which to delight yourself and your adoring online fans with the spoils of your genius (tiny naked women sprung from your beard like Athena from the head of Zeus), an attic in the house in Philadelphia where you live with your real-life wife and daughter who will become the way in which you describe yourself on the cover of your book. This sense you access as a father is so sacred in its profundity that it must not be sullied by spoilers, must be approached in total credulity and any experience of it must be an utterly private affair.
In my rage I imagine a world where writing and reading by and for young girls defines literary culture and the mixed metaphor concoctions of thirty-something fathers are consigned to a shelf in the library separate from “proper fiction,” and labelled Post-Young Adult Literature. - Hestia Peppe

By the time a book is in galley form and sent out for review, there is almost always a synopsis on Amazon or Edelweiss that describes the plot. For The Shimmering Go-Between, Lee Klein’s debut novel, there is nothing.
This appears to be intentional, since on the book jacket itself there are two head-scratching statements: “It’s best not to reveal too much” and “All we can say is: please no spoilers.” This leaves the reviewer in a bit of a bind. One presumes that Klein wants people to read his novel, so how does he suggest enticing them to do so?
The title is from a quote by Vladimir Nabokov: “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall tale, there is a shimmering go-between.” Indeed, this book is one long collision between normal, everyday life — sprinkled as it is with familiar heartache and tragedy — and eye-popping, alternate-universe fairy tale.
We meet Dolores when she is 12 and still undeveloped, but taking advantage of her brother’s pornography collection while she heals from a bad fall from her bike. It’s not a great summer, and it turns worse when she starts feeling oddly nauseated and notices that her stomach is distended. Doctor visits and blood tests reveal the answer: Dolores suffers from parthenogenesis (the development of an egg without fertilization).
Perhaps more devastating, she suffers from parents who don’t believe her when she insists that she is truly untouched. After three consecutive terminated “episodes,” she’s put on birth control, and the matter is never discussed again. Perhaps that’s a spoiler, but since it all happens by page 15, there are plenty more surprises to come.
(And just an FYI to the author: The Immaculate Conception refers not to the Virgin Mary’s conceiving a child without benefit of insemination, but rather to her own conception free from the stain of original sin. It’s a common — ahem — misconception.) 
Dolores’ condition and history isolate her, and she keeps herself deliberately separate from her peers. She makes it almost through college before finally allowing herself to be wooed by a young politician named Max, who has nice eyes and a beard.
If Dolores as a virgin is hyper-fertile, Dolores having sex with a bearded man has all sorts of unimaginable outcomes that raise thorny moral issues that reverberate throughout the book, and that Klein and his characters sometimes notice, but on which they take no particular position.
The outcome of her and Max’s college affair sets the stage for another long stretch of determined isolation during which Dolores throws herself into her editorial work at National Geriatrics. Eventually, though, she admits to being smitten by her best friend at work, a widower named Wilson whom she describes as tall, kind, and — could it be otherwise? — bearded.
It turns out that Wilson is the heart of the story in many ways and on several levels. We get to know both him and his late wife, Rue, more fully than we do Dolores, who almost becomes a secondary character later in the book. Eight years on, Wilson is still quietly mourning Rue’s sudden death from a collision with a deer; five seconds earlier or later would have made all the difference.
But that type of “if only”randomness is universal. In the sublimely alternate worlds that Dolores, Wilson, and Rue experience, it’s not just that the universe is random, it’s as though any possibility of true choice is removed from the equation. Virtually no consequence is the result of a character’s freely elected choice or action.
Wilson’s free will is so compromised that he is controlled by not one, but two occupying and competing forces. His one personal choice is to cultivate a unique sexual talent that he shares with paying subscribers through his website; he can hardly be expected to anticipate the consequences when that talent marries with the product of his blackmail-induced assignation with Dolores. By the time we figure out who is actually narrating the story, the pressure is building toward explosions both personal and widespread.
In a story like this, in which the author introduces multiple levels of reality that demand his readers’ trust and willingness to go along for the ride, it’s imperative that the reality we’re familiar with be utterly believable. Thus, after years of consciously isolating herself for fear of what results from intimate contact, it makes no plausible sense that Dolores’ first gambit to re-enter the world is to blackmail her friend — the man she fantasizes about spending a normal life with — into having sex with her.
Even more unbelievable, we never hear her consider the probable outcome, based on her past history. He has a beard, for heaven’s sake! How can she possibly be caught unawares? There are several such elements that just don’t feel true when they really need to.
Dialogue is not Klein’s strong suit, but his prose is sometimes captivating. Outside of Wilson, Rue, and Dolores — it’s a lovely detail that Wilson surrounds himself with women whose names mean sorrow — the other characters are there merely as plot devices.
Klein’s sketches, which are sprinkled throughout to illustrate apparently random narrative components, have a quirky charm. He compares his story to those of George Saunders and Charlie Kaufman, and it’s easy to see the same meta-ness here as in, say, “Being John Malkovich.” Because of that, fans of Saunders’ fiction and Kaufman’s films will probably appreciate this tale that goes between the reality we know and onto other ones that just haven’t broken through yet. - Jenny Yacovissi

Atticus Books has politely and perhaps reasonably requested that all reviews of The Shimmering Go-Between avoid spoilers. The trouble with this request is that the content of Lee Klein’s debut novel is so bizarre—so novel, for lack of a better word—that it’s almost impossible to discuss without spoiling any of the surprises in store for first-time readers. All I can reveal if I’m to remain in compliance with the publisher’s request is that the narrative follows a lonely woman named Dolores who pines, in her own way, for a widower named Wilson. That they both work in publishing is probably safe to mention as well, but I’m skirting spoiler territory when I mention that each has a unique talent—one for what might be described as spontaneous generation and the other for demonstrating what the mythical Ouroboros is really swallowing. Beyond that, I can say no more about the plot of this wildly imaginative novel.
I can, however, mention the author’s prowess at bringing characters to life within the strange parameters he’s created. Despite—or perhaps because of—their gifts, Dolores and Wilson live proverbial lives of quiet desperation. Set partially at the dawn of the internet age, the novel finds both characters living alone yet attempting to reach out to the wider world through technology, each with extremely limited results. Yet their inner lives both literally and metaphorically churn with mystery and intrigue. That they eventually come together in a quasi-romantic liaison is practically inevitable, but the results are anything but predictable. I’ll run the risk of spoilage by allowing that they eventually involve the mayor of Trenton, New Jersey, and a very large pile of junk.
The publicity materials that came with my copy of The Shimmering Go-Between liken the novel to many things: a set of Russian nesting dolls, the fiction of George Saunders, and the films of Charlie Kaufman. While these analogues certainly work, I also imagine the novel’s dream logic will especially appeal to fans of bizarro fiction—particularly works like Andersen Prunty’s The Beard (in which the protagonist, among other things, watches helplessly as a herd of elephants abduct his grandfather, eats a psychotropic sandwich, rides a bus driven by a silent figure whose head resembles an onion, and moves to Ohio to grow a beard) and Josh Myers’s Feast of Oblivion (in which a self-styled halibut expert visits an underground fortress and accidentally uncovers a plot to destroy the universe).
A penchant for the bizarre, or at least the quirky, is nothing new for Atticus Books. Their past titles have reimagined Jesus Christ as a twentieth-century kid from the Badlands (Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen), interrogated consumer culture through the eyes of a burnt-out salesman on a whale hunt (The Snow Whale by John Minichillo), and followed a young American on a quest to learn the truth about her legendary Nazi-era filmmaker grandfather (Kino by Jürgen Fauth). Yet with The Shimmering Go-Between, Atticus breaks strange new ground, crossing from the relative realism of previous works to a distinctly surreal landscape ruled less by the head than the heart.
All of this is to say that The Shimmering Go-Between is a strange novel. Yet it’s an intricate, even beautiful, strangeness that never loses sight of its characters’ shared humanity. We’re all lonely in one way or another, Klein’s novel suggests. We’re all weird. We’re all damaged. We’re all guilty of things we wish we’d never done. Yet at the same time, we all have a capacity for wonder, and it’s ultimately this capacity that The Shimmering Go-Between celebrates. - Marc Schuster


Lee Klein, Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox. Barrelhouse Books, 2014.

Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox compiles a dozen years of disappointment transmitted via e-mail from a single editor to  hundreds of writers around the world. Performative and funny one minute, respectful and constructive the next, these rejections both serve as entertaining writing tips (suitable for use in today’s more adventuresome creative writing classrooms) and suggest a skewed story about a boy and his seminal semi-literary website, Eyeshot.net, which Lee Klein founded in 1999.

What started as a lark—sending playful rejection notes to writers who’d submitted work for the site—over ten years took on a life of its own, becoming an outlet for Klein to meditate on his aesthetic preferences, the purpose of literature, and the space between the ideal and the real.

Somewhere on the brutal truth continuum between Bill Hicks and Mussolini, Lee Klein’s rejection letters are mini-masterpieces of literary criticism disguised as no-thank-yous from Writer’s Hell. And yet, in each, a little lesson; a steadfast faith that says “I took the time to read what you created and this is exactly what I thought.” They should be passing these things out under the pillows at MFA camp; we’d all be better off. Blake Butler

Sometimes writers who succeed against the odds brag about the number of rejections they’ve accumulated. A rejection from Eyeshot’s Lee Klein is a whole different badge of honor. Like a letter from a serial killer on death row, your Tea Party inlaws, or the Pope, they’re suitable for framing and brilliantly repugnant. I kind of want to send him a really shitty story just so I can get one of these in return. Ryan Boudinot

To “decide” is to “cut,” and Lee Klein in the highly honed collection of rejections, Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, wields a drawer full of gleaming cutlery, edgy edged instruments of decision. Surely, he holds his pen like a surgeon holds the scalpel. These serrated graphs of glee and screed are incisive incisions—katana, rattled sabers, sharp-tongued stilettos of the split-lipped kiss-off. Michael Martone

Lee Klein made me cry. He was the only editor ever to make me. This was back in 2002. I wish I still had the email. I remember it going something like, “whenever you have the instinct to write a line like that, delete it immediately, without prejudice.” I hated him for a while. I pictured him looking like the guy in that 90’s movie Heavy (the one with Liv Tyler), except housebound and with no redeemable qualities. Then, somewhere around 2004, I met him “IRL” and he was soft-spoken and sweet. It was harder to hate him after that. Reading all of these rejection letters here in this book made me finally fall a little in love with him, I think. I think if I had had access to (and disassociation from) these letters then, I might have fallen in love with him then. This is the funniest book I have read in a long time. It is also the smartest. I feel confused now, like I’m unsure whether to love or hate Lee Klein. But both of us are married now so it doesn’t really matter.–Elizabeth Ellen


Because the Internet is a place filled with infinite wonders both adorable and grotesque, I will give you the 140 character Twitter review first: This book is immensely entertaining, informative, and at times laugh out loud funny. You should get a copy, especially if you are a writer. Are you sold? Good! Here you go. You are now free to cruise the majestic Information Superhighway in search of cat videos and weird pornography. However, if you need a little more information, read on.
 Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck is a collection of rejection letters written by Lee Klein to the various writers submitting to his web-zine over the last ten years. Klein edits Eyeshot.net, and somehow he has managed to do so without ever resorting to the form rejection letter. (For the uninitiated, some literary magazines and publishers receive thousands of submissions during their reading periods. I have trouble responding to my family without monotonously repeating the same six sentences, so I can imagine why it’s easier for most editors to prepackage something polite and send it to 90% of the writers whose work won’t fit.) 

A book like this runs the risk of being voyeuristic toward the suffering of writers, but Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck manages to avoid that. Instead, it is an insightful look into the thought processes of a man who has been reading unsolicited manuscripts for a number of years. While I read, I often found myself pausing to try to recreate the rejected stories in my mind, which surely were worse in my imaginings than they were in Klein’s inbox. But who knows?
    The letters collected here have a raw, off-the-cuff feel. They are personal reactions, evidenced by the bits of autobiographical information seasoned throughout. These letters aren’t cruel or dismissive; they’re just painfully honest. Some are brutally short. Others fill the page with insights into what the story did wrong or how it veered just slightly away from what he was looking for. Occasionally, Klein offers up surreal suggestions for what might have made the story more up his alley. One of my favorite bits from a rejection letter included the following text:        

"There were no alligators in it. Maybe if you exchanged the hail for alligators and the CEO for a baseball bat, we’d have something, but as it is, with neither alligator nor baseball bat, we cannot offer acceptance. Sorry. But thanks for submitting and good luck with this elsewhere!"

The ending of that quote is important because Klein almost universally goes out of his way to encourage the rejected writer to submit again. Often these letters include self-deprecation to blunt the trauma for the writer. Sometimes he waxes on the meaning of a rejection letter, which as almost all writers know, can feel devastating and personal. In one letter Klein writes: “The rejection has nothing to do with you or your children or your way of life. Only the piece of writing you sent me. You and it are different. I wrote about what you wrote.”
The reason I say that this book is especially good for writers is that some of these letters are short essays on the craft of writing and submitting stories. Klein muses on many aspects of storytelling, like “show, don’t tell” or how a story should veer from the reader’s expectations.
     For the record, I am jaded on most writing advice. I’ve seen the same thoughts written a thousand different ways, by writers running the gambit from experienced to wannabe. That said, I found myself taking notes from some of the letters featured in Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck. One of the most profound pieces of advice I’ve read in a while was simple: “Think about the person on the other side of the screen — not me — but those so-called ‘readers.’ How do you want them to respond to your stuff? How do you want to move and manipulate them, make their minds go mmm?” It’s important to remember that before submitting to a journal you were an enthusiastic reader. The reader is why you edit your poem — so it embodies the emotion you want to portray and isn’t just scribbling in a notebook. Readers are why you don’t front load a story with a thousand words of exposition about the protagonist’s childhood. I know many writers who forget this fact — I’ve been guilty of it myself.
    Whether or not you’ve visited Klein’s site or read the stories he posts over there, you will see that each story he rejects received as thorough a reading as it deserved. Klein is honest and unafraid to give a writer feedback. He pulls no punches. Writers who sent their work to Klein over the years were lucky to send work to an editor with the energy to personalize so many rejections. I will admit, if other editors tried to recreate what Klein pulls off here, it’d get old quickly. But there is something about his voice and the way Klein mixes his editorial authority with self-deprecating humor that makes this work. Do other editors reject with equal humor and brutal honesty, doing so in the safety of the shadows? Perhaps. Whether they do or not, Klein’s book serves as a reminder that it wouldn’t hurt if we worked a little harder to send editors stories that break them out of the fog of Nyquil and nicotine withdrawal. This book calls on us to up our writing game. For my money, that makes it well worth the read. - J
ohn F. Gardner

A long, long time ago, before Twitter or Facebook or even the Y2K Bug, a literary website called Eyeshot came into the world. The year was 1999. The editor of the site, 20-something writer Lee Klein, lived in Brooklyn.
To get things going, Klein wrote the site’s first few stories under pseudonyms. But within a few years, guided by Klein’s particular tastes, the site regularly featured the likes of Zadie Smith, Daniel Alarcon, Tao Lin and Randa Jarrar. Most established literary outlets had little presence online at the dawn of Internet lit, but upstarts like Eyeshot, Pindeldyboz,and others offered fiction, humor and nonfiction. Writers visited these sites daily to see who got published, as they worked on their own stories for consideration.
I found Eyeshot while living in suburban Atlanta in 2002. I submitted something, and not only did Klein email back right away, he accepted the piece. Even better, his enthusiastic response to the submission filled me with helium.
So I submitted more. Then something else happened: Rejection.
I didn’t just get the cold, two-line, de rigueur dismissal of the literary industry. No form letter here. From Eyeshot, you received a (very) personal email from Klein, just an hour or two after submission of the piece. The email often started off by asking what the hell you were thinking.
Once your vision cleared and you took in the rest of the email, you found that Klein had actually read every sentence in your rejected story. He offered feedback on where things went wrong for him. He’d tack on something about his activities there in Brooklyn. And then he would sign off with a polite thanks, an apology and a request for more submissions.

If you want to be a published writer, and especially if you live in suburbia, you need someone to tell you the Truth about your work. Klein offered this, free of charge. His brusque honesty hooked me. I didn’t know what he looked like, but I pictured a shorter, wider version of Joey Ramone sitting on the other side of the computer screen, a punk encircled by books and empty coffee cups, cigarette dangling from his lips, voice husky with the weight of his smoky critiques. (Note: He doesn’t look like a hefty Joey Ramone.)
I had no idea at the time if Klein sent bespoke rejections to everyone or just the “lucky” ones. The answer became obvious when Klein started posting collections of his rejections on Eyeshot. These tiny, tight bursts of writing hummed with energy that hopscotched among comical, cruel, warm, demented, high level and nitpicky. Send him a piece of your soul on Microsoft Word, Klein seemed to believe, and you deserved a piece of his soul right back. An amazing little act of generosity, considering the number of terrible pieces of writing out there. (Klein estimates that he has tapped out more than a thousand original rejections.)
A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Klein will publish a novel later this summer, The Shimmering Go-Between (Atticus Books). As a precursor, Barrelhouse Books presents Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, a 214-page collection of Klein’s best blow-offs, turndowns and tender slaps. A quick read—one email per page—it’ll make the reader cringe, LOL and furrow eyebrows. It contains handsome writing, as well as goofy email prose. And the central character—Klein himself—plays a delightfully erratic, blustery, supportive and hysterical critic to the army of wannabe writers filling up email boxes everywhere.
“Learn to spell FELLATIO!” he implores in one rejection. “I’m not going to post this because it’s not funny at all.”
“You brought blood to my brain,” he confronts in another. “Meet me at 9 pm for a duel of chicken bones and hot sauce, somewhere near the L train—at the KFC at 14th and 3rd. I will show you rude and crude. I will teach you the meaning of removed. I will show you what happens when eager talent is misdirected.”
Klein intones to another eager writer, “Excuse me for sounding like that senator debating Dan Quayle, but I know Joyce very well, and you are no James Joyce.”
At first blush, this concept—publishing rejections that broke the hearts of (anonymous) writers—might seem cruel. Maybe. But we all know that writing is difficult. Writers need candid feedback. If an editor possesses little time or energy to respond properly to poor writing, fine. But let us celebrate the editors who speak up.
In this game of writing, no one returns a service like Klein. Like a good sport, he also compliments a splendid shot.
“I like the way you write,” he says.
“I admire and support highly detailed writing,” he says.
“Your story’s first paragraph is good, and so is your language, the rhythm, and aerodynamics,” he says.
He also uses “maybe” a lot and Ye Olde Trick of placing a question mark at the end of a frank statement to lightly mute his howl. Sometimes he merely asks questions.
“How do you want them to respond to your stuff?” he poses to one writer. “How do you want to move and manipulate them, make their minds go mmm?”
The reader will find solid counsel in the pages. Bonus entertainment value springs from Klein’s description of his hangovers, his penchant for autoerotic discourse, his flirtations with certain submitters and his hopeless battle to stop writers from submitting stories involving dentists. He often seems at his wit’s end.
“I’d like what you sent a little more if it were rapped,” he tells one writer.
“The aura of this one is sort of a freckly yellow,” he explains to another, “which reminds me of bananas, which doesn’t make me want to post it.”
“There were no alligators in it,” he offers yet another. “Maybe if you exchanged the hail for alligators and the CEO for a baseball bat, we’d have something, but as it is, with neither alligator nor baseball bat, we cannot offer acceptance.”
Sometimes, Klein rants randomly, with the occasional typo.
“Suicide’s a downer, isn’t? It used to be, is it still? Do you know why everyone’s sending stuff on suicide? What the hell? People must be trying to kill other people off?”
When he leaves behind the business of rejections and opens a window into his life, Klein the editor transforms into what he longs to find—a talented writer with a warped sensibility.
“I just moved to Iowa City,” he writes in one rejection. “Cats have been hunting down the bunnies the last few days. The thing we’ve learned is that bunnies make noises, a crazy distress signal, like five high ‘ehnt-ehnt-ehnt-ehnt-ehnt’ blasts and then are silent and all nose sniffing. Who knew? Turns out rabbits aren’t on those circular animal noise maker things kids have for good reason! Cow goes moo moo, lamb goes bah bah, bird goes tweet tweet, bunny goes crazy fucking murderous high-alert alarm freakout.”
In another email, we breathe a whiff of Brooklyn and its fleeting wonders—before Klein lowers the boom on the submitting writer.
“Late last night I was boundless energy personified, relentless thirst, desire, awareness, alive in an endless city of funny smart pretty eagle-winged adolescents in their late twenties I somehow didn’t hate, but now the world seems reduced to you and me. Listen, if someone accepts any of these, do not trust that source. You’ve got some work to do.”
Back in the early aughts, Klein held a few readings in New York that asked us to reconsider the practice. At an Eyeshot/Klein “reading,” you brought your own book, sat down with others and read silently for one hour. In an era of writer performances every night, in every Brooklyn bar and coffee shop, Klein wanted attendees to appreciate the principal, sacred connection between writer and reader.
In Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck, cynics might presume that Klein cares little for his fellow writers if he’s so willing to shred egos. But his aim aligns with those readings and his respect for the writer-reader relationship. He simply wants others to show the same.
“Readerly love is unlike motherly love,” he tells a writer in the collection. “It’s absolutely conditional. Don’t expect readers protected behind computer screens won’t sneer, roll eyes, get bored.”
Let’s hope some of the rejected took Klein’s advice. Eyeshot, a sprawling and chaotic site, still churns 15 years later. Klein, now a married dad living in Philadelphia, publishes regularly. And he shares what he knows—even, at the least, how to handle rejection.
“Do you hate me now?” he writes. “You shouldn’t. I don’t hate you because I didn’t want to post your story. The story exists outside of you. You are not your story. You can take what I say and think about it, or cry, or tell me to piss off. All are acceptable. Or ignore me. Whatever.”
By the end of the collection, readers understand that when Klein says “whatever,” he might not mean it at all. - Jamie Allen

There's no way to explain this book without making it sound like a book that you probably don't want to read, but it's a book that you probably do want to read, because it's really good. It's mostly insanely confusing for the vast majority of the book, but everything is made fairly clear at the end. Also, it's not the kind of confusing where the narration is poor and the point of view is vague and the prose is convoluted; it's obvious from moment to moment specifically what is physically happening, what the forward motion of each scene encompasses. The confusion comes from the magical realism of the story and the fact that much of what is happening doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. In general, everything seems fairly improbable, if not impossible.
Improbability shouldn't deter anyone from a good book, though. Harry Potter is improbable, as are all of Aesop's fables and One Hundred Years of Solitude and really the vast bulk of human literature. The Shimmering Go-Between is only different in that it pretends to be probable and doesn't flinch when facing its own absurdity.
I don't specifically understand what I was meant to get from this book, but I'll be thinking about it for a long time, which is probably enough. There's a lot of sex and abstraction and general weirdness that isn't found in a lot of books, or maybe is found in other books but not necessarily in this same combination. It's new. It's difficult to find a book that feels new, but this book feels new. Maybe I haven't read enough magical realism, or maybe there's some kind of obscure sub-genre that I've never stumbled upon that The Shimmering Go-Between is the perfect example of, but for the most part I found the book refreshing because I genuinely had not the fainting flipping idea what was going to happen next at any point in the book. From page one, there was absolutely nothing that I would have considered to be "predictable." That's really rare, and regardless of how you feel about absurdity or improbability or sex or mystery goop, it's worth reading this book just to experience that pure sense of curiosity that comes from discovering something that is genuinely new. - Brian McGackin

Lee Klein, Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World,  Better Non Sequitur, , 2004.

Churning like a third-world traveler’s stomach, Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World is a travelogue about finding the unexpected in familiar places. A frustrated shipper of rare books at a Boston bookstore (who refers to himself as "The Egotourist") returns to his parents’ suburban New Jersey home to work temporary jobs and earn enough money to take a hundred buses to Cuzco, Peru. Alternating among essays, dialogues, and short spiels, Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World rolls with the Egotourist’s restlessness as he tells of long-distance love, Black Sabbath cover bands, flirtatious administrative assistants, minotauric secretaries, and camaraderie in copy centers, all of it heading toward a hard-earned trip south of the border. Ultimately, the Egotourist discovers that what he sought in far-flung destinations is just as easily found in the unexpected exoticism of home.

Obviously I finished the novel, or travelogue, or memoir, or whatever it is and now I am sad it is over. Brilliant piece of work. I will be thinking more about the “book” in the coming hours and writing something far too rambling for most people, but necessary for me to get the firmest, most exacting grasp I can on what I just read. “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” by David Foster Wallace comes to mind and how I hated that essay to end. Not that this book was a group of essays, but maybe they were, kind of. I have every reason to believe that Lee Klein could and should write essays on anything he wants to, even if they’re all made-up lies. He has secured a devoted reader right here in me and I will loudly laud praise, if that means anything to anybody these days. I had hoped Jonathan Lethem was my “new” DFW but he isn’t, though he does write an occasional good piece from time to time (but I really hate his fiction). I have little doubt, actually none at all, that Lee Klein could be the savior for this important genre, if he is so inclined.
The story or novel, the book, centers around the narrator called The Egotourist, a young man seeking a better, more meaningful existence, a desire to go beyond his present life of working in a smelly BBQ joint in Texas, or followed by working in a bookstore in Boston, and then with inspiration from his girlfriend Hannah finally deciding to move back home to New Jersey and live with his parents while earning enough money working temporary jobs in order to pay his way for his next escape by bus to Cuzco, Peru in order to travel for fun and teach English. Living sometimes too-much together in this parental home is his mother, an abstract painter who cusses and carries on existential arguments with her son, a father who has devoted his retired years of his life to playing tennis and watching videocassettes of his matches and old discovered films, and the family dog. Klein manages to bring them all to life as his story as a temp unfolds.
Lee Klein, I have to believe, is a very interesting person simply given the wonderful book of his, Incidents of Egotourism in the Temporary World. The characters he created were obviously all interesting and important to the narrator of the book, The Egotourist. His mother, The Postmenopausalist, his best friend Crawley, another friend Stewart and his dog, his father the tennis player, and the love of his life Hannah who lives too-far-away-for-me in Chapel Hill. Several of the temporary jobs are described in detail in which stories develop from these circumstances. There is no way that Lee Klein could have kept my attention without his “truthful”, demonstrative, and comedic descriptions of his characters and their conversations. It is my theory that to be able to do this continually he himself has to be interesting too.
The personality of a writer has to come through the work for it to have any meaning at all for me. There are many cases where the writer turns out to be somebody I am not interested in reading because I simply do not like him or her personally. Michael Chabon and Jay McInerney come immediately to mind. Yes, I did like McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City and yes, I did like one of the early books of Michael Chabon’s, the title of which escapes my memory today but it was something about The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But I wouldn’t want to have coffee with either one of these fellows. I once wrote McInerney to see if I could mail him a copy of his hit book for him to sign for me and he answered that he didn’t do that sort of thing. I guess he was trying to be like Mr. Salinger, but a little bit too full of himself, as he was no Salinger as far as I was concerned. His subsequent books have proven I was correct in my assumption unless you insist on being a lover of crap. And there are other writers that meant more to me as a younger man than they mean to me now such as Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane, two of my very favorite escapists of the past. Both of their personalities engaged me in wanting to be friends with them. But they are both too many years older and they both never really changed much through the course of their lives to re-engage my still-waning interest in them. They both wrote some of the funniest and serious pieces of fiction for me that I have ever read, but nothing since during their long and prosperous careers. Keep in mind I said “some” and nowhere near the best. Even their non-fiction works interested me for a period of my life when I was searching for a life that I could live. Harrison's Just Before Dark was a fun read that included several cooking, drinking, and walking episodes in many of his essays. Sons, by McGuane, was a favorite also for a short period. Though they both spend most time in the West, Harrison has a home on the Leelanau Peninsula and a cabin in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and I believe Thomas McGuane was either from Michigan originally or he went to school somewhere like MSU. It was this Michigan connection that attracted me to them in the first place.
J.D. Salinger's work always interests me. His life did not. I never wanted to be pals with Mr. Salinger but I respect and love his fiction as much as any I have read. I do think I would have liked him personally, but he did not want to be friends nor did he really want his life to be known or made over. Ernest Hemingway did. Not only did Hemingway have a swashbuckling personality almost larger than life, it came through in his writing and yes, I would have liked to have been friends with Hemingway. Gordon Lish I am friends with and I love his personality, so charming, clever, and Jewish in his fears and foibles. I also love what he does on the page and the stage. Lish is still surprising me today even with his latest piece of fiction “Gnat” published in The Antioch Review. Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer now dead some decade and a half, could have been another great friend of mine if he was so inclined to have me for a neighbor. His dark view on society and government, the people he believes call the shots, the silly prizes they dole out, all of his work both a joy and a burden to read. Bernhard can wear you out if you tackle too many of his books consecutively, but there really has been no better writer on the planet than Thomas Bernhard. Cormac McCarthy is always very good and I think he would be an interesting and engaging person to know. So intelligent and gifted. He might be a tad too serious for me on a personal level, but I do find his work compelling.
There are plenty of writers who interest me for at least one book and then I feel I have seen it all and there just isn’t enough personality left in them to keep me engaged. Gary Lutz is a good example of an extremely talented writer, gifted supremely in the use of language, but because of his personality, his lack of putting forth the very best and most interesting parts of himself, he remains mired in the place setting of his own choosing which is one of a victim for lack of a better word. Sort of like his fate in life or what the gods have given him to deal with on a daily basis. He is one of the nicest writers I have known but he does not let too many people, if any, get too close. I remember once in class when Gordon Lish attempted to get him to change a sentence he had written to “resorting to my unresortful life”. I always thought that was pretty clever of Lish, but Gary never changed it.
There isn’t anything I really do know for a fact about Lee Klein. If he really does drive an old Subaru as The Egotourist does it is with my honor and pride that I admit to driving one too, except mine is a 2006 model with only about 117,000 miles on it. Yet, and in a most respectful way, I believe he is something in the spirit of the following adjectives and more: intelligent, well-read, informed, kind, clever, funny, discerning, loving, sarcastic, charming, critical, and voluble. I don’t know anything about his personal life. I couldn’t possibly know if he has substance abuse problems, fears of intimacy, gender issues, if he is athletic, uncoordinated, or disabled. But the man sure can write. I love to read what he has to say about his people and their things they find important, his jobs, his mom and dad, the dog, his girl Hannah, and the rest of the mad and delicious characters almost flashing through every story it seems.
The chapter “Arguments in Favor of a Generally Unpopular Belief” is one of the very best rants ever written by anyone. I am envious of Klein’s talent for making his rant not only clear but so enjoyable to read and to think about afterwards. The entire piece was masterly written and one I will certainly attempt to beat with one of my very own rants to come. And it is, or may be, highly unlikely I will succeed.
The chapter “Brave Men Run” is a beautiful love story. I felt, throughout the book and now even a few hours since reading it, hopeful for Hannah and The Egotourist, that their love for each other will survive the time and distance it takes for him to run as his granddad did, but in this instance the trip he’s taking isn’t to Poland, and maybe not as fast, but the question remains at least in his case as maybe for this god’s sake, “what for?” - M Sarki


Mary Burger - a brilliant intervention on the aftereffects of teleological thinking. This work summons the complexities and conundrums that are lodged like holograms in our philosophical archives. Mirror motifs: logics of systems wrestle/systems of logics wrestle to question our hardwired metaphors for existence

Mary Burger, Then Go On, Litmus Press, 2012.

The formal inventiveness of Mary Burger’s writing in part derives from her questioning of received ideas but also from the sheer pleasure she seems to take in following what the sentence can do within the “as-yet as-ever still-undetermined space between send and receive.” The attempt in these poems-in-prose, which are also essays or essay-like poetic inventions, is critical (as in critique and crucial): to make more real what is covered over and abstracted, not by simplifying but activating the thinking writer’s experience of those cultural, philosophical, scientific, and social logics that imagine their target audiences (“us”) to be objects merely of affirmation and compliance. —Carla Harryman

The mind at work in Mary Burger’s Then Go On is by turns exacting, passionate, tuned in to matters of scale as well as the functional paradox (“It is possible she was one of those who could steer the correct course only when she believed navigation was impossible”), and wholly unremitting in its drive to “verify the veracity of perception.” These qualities are made active through the precision and clarity of Burger’s sentences, which are always situated in the present, and which can cut through one’s given layers of belief with an oddly deliberate (sensitive) quickness. No other writing I know right now has such unadorned focus. Reading Then Go On has me reconsidering my notions of what certain surfaces – that of a person, a social identity, a piece of writing – can be. —Anselm Berrigan

Then Go On is a brilliant intervention on the aftereffects of teleological thinking. This work summons the complexities and conundrums that are lodged like holograms in our philosophical archives. Mirror motifs: logics of systems wrestle/systems of logics wrestle to question our hardwired metaphors for existence. Burger undoes (our cultural motives for) thingness with a series of affective lingual stunts. This book takes the reader into thinking post-human as she translates thought currents under and below meaning. Burger traces the social along neural pathways of cognition in edgy, provocative writing. —Brenda Iijima

 The avant-garde style of Mary Burger’s writing arrives as a contemplation of the space between sending and receiving. The prose poems, or essay-like poetic explorations demonstrate a close attention to reality. The voice that guides the text is one of ebb and flow towards the cultural, philosophical, and social realities of modernity. In the poem “Orbital,” “A certain comfort with motion, at any scale, lets you shift between here, in this kitchen, and here, in this coastal weather pattern, and here, in this planetary orbital path, and here, in this unfurling galaxy.” The poem unfolds upon itself in moments like these, as if to illustrate that multiplicity is indicative of the human condition. To exist one must occupy numerous places all within the confines of the present moment. Writing towards the continuous epiphany of what it means to be fully alive, “The Current” shows Burger writing of that liveliness as “And our existence here due to the act that there are those willing to work for the only-imaginable.” The implication is that the dreamy state of one human being’s imagination leads to a sense of progress for society. Of the hope for humanity, the prose poem continues with “This paradigm shifts so that words are as nimble as neurotransmitters. Like a small chemical messenger, a word can do anything you can think of. A word can move muscles. A word can hold eyes.” Just like speech, the poetic prose located on the space of white pages bound in book form help to awaken the reader. Returning to that sense of ebb and flow, the reader is asked to think towards “A risk. To risk a little every day. To make sure you want it still. Invite opponents to attack. Risk gravity, velocity, impact, mass. Some can’t live without challenge. Some can’t ask.” As if to pull on the glorious idea of what it means to be fully able to create a once wild and precious life, the intention seems to be one of igniting a passion for luminous elements: speech, movement, art, nature, and even the seemingly ordinary right to dream. - Melissa Barrett-Traister

I’ve read this book of 20 short pieces a few times and still don’t understand half of it but I keep going back to let it re-code certain parts of my mind, sharpen the many dulled edges. These prose poems are essay-like and engineered to call into question our understanding of how we develop and maintain a sense of what we know. - Matthew Jakubowski



It became necessary then to stop entirely, or to go on in a different way.
I discarded a language behind the language that was more present and less conflicted.
This language materialized, or coalesced I suppose, as if a fog had been there all along but gradually became opaque so that the air that I had seen through became instead the thing that I could see.
That knowledge be something that could be used to affect our material conditions was a premise I was forced to reconsider.
How really impossibly wrong our interpretations of others’ behaviors are all of the time. I didn’t want my conversations to be limited to those with an interest in language.
The sideways hustle that brought me here, this place can’t be reached any other way and yet it is imperative to get here, unforeseeable though it is. This place coalesces out of the accidents and refusals of the places we try concertedly to be. This place, though indispensable, could just as easily have been missed.
The reference points keep changing but the desires seem to remain the same: to be in a room with others. To have one’s shape taken up by the others and enlarged beyond what one thought possible. This is something we can do for one another. The unforeseeable outcomes of various combinations can improve conditions beyond any expectations. This decision seemed to attract the longed- for companions.
Everything we could think of, we put in a photograph and delivered to the rest of the world. It wasn’t the same as if you were there; what we could think of became shaped by the form of a photograph being delivered to the many people we had never seen. We began to think in the form of the photograph.
We enjoyed those times so, it was as if we were looking back on a fond memory. We treated the present like something that had already happened.
I am becoming something I can’t name; therefore I exceeds this thing. This excess amounts to the nature of mind, that wants to be elsewhere.
In retrospect, a pattern emerged, but only just; one could not say it had been premeditated.
And it went on like this, with the occurrence of an occasional phrase, an insect buzzing past the ear.
© Litmus Press. All rights reserved.

His Wrist

His wrist was not like me.  His wrist was part of him and where he went his wrist went with him.  I could know his wrist but not the way he did.  I had attachment to his wrist.  His wrist was like a movie.  Like a movie I could touch.  Between my thumb and fingers.  His wrist was not transparent, it wasn’t like a movie that way.  It reflected light.  It moved in space and time, it was a movie that way.  When the space and time in which I saw his wrist was gone, his wrist was gone.  That’s the way it was a movie.  It existed when I looked at it.  When I couldn’t see it it was memory.  An image in my mind.  Just like a movie.

A wrist that didn’t know it was.  What does a wrist know?  He knew that he had one, he knew that he had two.  If they were missing he’d be gone.  His wrists would never leave without him.


I Like Purple
                                                            for Iris Vitiello, age almost 6

“I like purple,” she says.  “I don’t know why.”

She tapes plastic farm animals to a piece of cardboard and calls it a farm.  She has colored the cardboard green.  We accept her premise.

It wasn’t so hard to understand what we’d done—
create a work in which “being” was always in question—
but the existence of the work defied understanding.

A study on narrative positivism—the novel represents public and private space, violence represents subconscious urges—cannot account for it.

Walk me through the body.

That everything be a playlet—the accordion-playing rabbit, the finely detailed plastic hippo (“West Germany”), the fish vase with the round eye hole and the open mouth, the Indonesian shadow puppet, all enact a drama on the dining room table—and we keep going, as if we knew their parts and could play them.

The truth came out:  I did not know how to read.

An ego gets formed, and a vocabulary, which may at first seem easy, even trite, may seem to determine specific ideas, may seem to prevent the transformation of an embroidered peasant shawl into a wriggling hallucination—girls lined up, one row above another, as if in the corridors of a cell block, a bar or scarf floating across their middle, and below the heads of the next row, the bars moved and danced with the girls, and it seemed the whole system might split, but it didn’t.


Notes From the Ground

Essay reprinted from A Partial Handbook for Navigators, writings about natural and

constructed space.

Published by Interbirth Books, 2008.

It’s nothing like being dead.

I made an early-morning trip to lie in a shallow grave and watch the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the fog.  Karl and his friends placed shovels of dirt on me.   He said tell him if it got hard to breathe.

It was workaday city dirt, gray, clumpy, littered with human detritus.   No fragrant humus, no romance of fertility and renewal.

Karl and the rest drifted away to leave me alone with my interment.  The weight of the soil pressed lightly, my head lolled on its earth pillow.  I was immobilized, more by my complicity than by the weight itself.   My hands at my sides, I was released from activity.

At grass-eye level, I flipped quickly through Horton hearing a Who, Gulliver stumbling over Lilliput.  There were small things walking around down there.  My point of view on the ground plane made knee-jerk reactions irrelevant.  I stared at the Golden Gate, impressed by my private audience.  A pelican flew low overhead, its usually-inaudible wing beats amplified.  The perimeter revolved with joggers, dog walkers, early strollers.  What would I tell them if any asked why I was lying here at seven in the morning, with only my head above ground?

I went into the earth to find out if it was any different there.

I went looking for some recognition on the earth’s part, or my part, that we were together.

I find cemeteries especially interesting because they represent both the beginning and the end of landscape and architecture.  Architectural historians are in common agreement that the tomb represents the very first attempt to create enduring built structures.
—Ken Warpole

This structure was not a tomb and not enduring, not really a structure.  Park caretakers would restore the sod after we left.

In early Europe and America, the dead were placed in small churchyards in bustling town centers, with austere slab headstones and no greenery to distract from the somber business of mourning.  By the nineteenth century, the rise of Enlightenment secularism combined with a new public aversion to living near corpses and a growing romanticist taste for picturesque landscapes.  A modern hybrid emerged: the rural cemetery.  In these park-like settings, graves were arranged beneath groves of trees, and the leafy paths and vistas were designed as much for the pleasures of the living as for the remembrance of the dead.  Families might take an excursion to the edge of the city, pay their respects to a forbear, and enjoy a picnic under the elms.  The first of these destination cemeteries, Pere-lachaise, opened on the edge of Paris in 1803.   Variations arose across the United States, from Mount Auburn near Cambridge to Mountain View in the Oakland hills.  These early memorial/recreational sites organized the emotions in rambling but decorous arrays.  White marble monuments in ancient Greek, Roman, or Egyptian style perched among landscapes designed for poetic, transcendental contemplation.  As years went on, plantings became more ornamental, and the cemeteries came to resemble arboreta.

But within a century, it seems, the miniature cities of monuments and carefully framed views had become too sumptuous to encompass contemporary understandings of mortality, or of land use.  Twentieth-century cemeteries began to emphasize utility and regularity, with little investment in design.  Yet one among them stands out.

The Woodland Cemetery in Stockholm, begun in 1915, restored the use of simple slab headstones but scattered them among deep forest, with broad grassy slopes beyond.  It was as if the churchyard cemetery were sprung from its pen and released into the countryside.  The interspersing of natural landforms and modest stone markers evokes layered responses; here, we who’ve been born in the past hundred years or so can recognize some of the complexity of our mortal predicament.  Swedish landscape architect Thorbjörn Andersson describes the effect as “feelings of landscapes of many different sorts, such as hope and happiness, sorrow and despair, death and resurrection. It is an environment full of feelings that facilitate contact between the inner and outer landscapes.”

Part disappearing act, part self-amplification.

My moment was nothing like death.

Rod’s father died the day before.  It wasn’t unexpected.  It wasn’t tragic.  It was an end of a definite kind.  He met me at Crissy Field after my voluntary interment to take a walk before he flew east for the funeral.

Everything is not a metaphor for everything.

It was nothing like being dead, but the comparison with a gravesite was inevitable.  If this were to be my grave some day—this over-famous site that had been my youthful pilgrimage, the place where I became most alive—I would not live to regret it.
Andersson, Thorbjörn.  Quoted in Ken Warpole, “Stockhom Woodland Cemetery.”  WWW.Opendemocracy.net.
Chappell, Jim.  The Magic of Landscape.   WWW.Spur.org/jimchappell.
Rogers, Elizabeth Barlow.  Landscape Design: A Cultural and Architectural History.  New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001.
Spirn, Anne Whiston.  The Language of Landscape.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Warpole, Ken.  “Stockhom Woodland Cemetery.”  WWW.Opendemocracy.net/


Excerpt from Sonny

Lyric novella on the Manhattan Project and a rural American family

Published by Leon Works Press, 2005

This boy raised rabbits and kept them in cardboard pens in the yard.

He showed the rabbits at the fair. He sold the rabbits for pets, or for fur, or for food.


Once when it snowed very hard the boy had to climb on the roof of the house and push the snow off with a broom.

His sisters looked out through the glass front door.


What this boy liked best about representation was the way it consoled him for being alive.

What this boy liked best about being alive was the way it consoled him for the immateriality of representation.


But this was something new—
something out of all proportion—

Once it was dangerous to know that you were not the center. Then the knowledge put us at the center once again. What other creature knew the world that way? We outlasted our own credibility.

We broke our world apart and started over, broke it and rebuilt it in a different form. Now we were teaching nature to remake itself. An abstract version of a civic form. If there was no creation or destruction, what we valued was what we used to build the form.

We looked for one event that would begin or end, a single mark that everything was organized around.

The climax turning unextraordinary when it repeats. So the haze of arousal, undistinguished, punctuated repeatedly

blue, gray, orange.

It was the moment of implosion that we lived for but the aftermath that made it interesting.


They mean so many things when they say “brother.” Almost always they mean more than a picture on the wall.

This one was natural, made with an element in nature.


Because it isn’t possible to explain what we did in terms of knowing, if we didn’t know but thought we did, believing that we did,

in order to do anything it’s necessary to separate one thing from the others, one thread pulled through the air, to understand is different from the thought,

the rabbit freezes, twitches, cocks its ears, eyes blinking—
to act is different from the understanding of the act—
the rabbit tenses, springs, and disappears,

the act is over and the thought remains—
bouncing across the field and vanishing,

we fell back on the only thing we knew.
Skinning rabbits for fur or for food.

It was the aftermath of industry, when industry had spent itself and moved away, delivered too well on its promises, and had to take them back. The problem was, we gave them more, and they expected more again, they wanted things and time to use their things.

We forced the needle up and then we couldn’t keep it there.

Hunting knife drawn down an exposed belly, a beaded line of blood before it’s pulled apart, the anatomical candor, not animal, not meat,

it was a natural thing but one we’d never seen before.


What this boy did best was what could not be used for anything.
Through every stage of history, we try to find the thing we recognize.

What this boy liked best,
the end of everything, over and over again.


In the aftermath we see a clean trajectory, a feat that we can easily repeat. Simple, like a gun. A bullet through a barrel through a head.

Of course we don’t have many relics from that first time—a little twisted rebar from the tower. We know we’ll never find the hull rusting on the ocean floor.

That’s why the picture is significant.

We fought the only way that we were able to—we calculated things the world had never known. We carved pieces of a puzzle we made up as we went on. We knew what we were after—or we knew what we were starting from. It’s hard to realize now that we were so unsure—

Mary has the ability to participate while being outside of.
Thus, when irrevocably outside of such as in the past, she can extrapolate the participation in.
And then build suddenly deeply meaningful generalizations on top of this:
How was it supposed to work out, raising the young and having a society?
At times, this book gives genuine philosophy, as opposed to the faux Wittgenstein that so many of us crank out:
Their dream for an unmediated transfer from intention to matter was the subject matter.A response that acknowledged pointlessness by making a subject out of it.
I thought these lines would go flat out of context but no. Mary's book can be applied.
- the_delay.blogspot.com/2005/07/mary-burgers-new-book-sonny.html

Sonny is one of the most exciting texts I've encountered in some time. Thin, agile, light as air, and condensed to the point of delirious richness, it possesses the sort of elasticity that I find irresistible. Bed time reading, subway reading, a steady companion in a narrative way--there is propulsion--but also in the random entry. Am I the only one who prefers a morsel of language to then linger over as the subway rattles along? I don't need to cling to the sentences in an orderly narrative, and neither does Burger.
The man who thrived for fifty years on work he learned at twenty served his country in the war in a munitions factory and burned his lip at break time drinking coffee from a mason jar.

As fallout rained down on the milk cows, as Strontium-90 was pronounced on the radio and overheard in grocery stores.

This man kept a balance in the bank. (34)

What confident precision this is, shifting from declarative to litany:
Who tried to kill herself but couldn't die.
Who packed her clothes and waited for the train.
always with pristine imagery:
The atomic cattle, like the atomic cat, grew small white stars where the fallout rained on them.
This world assembles, is liminal, is kaleidoscopic and angular as the author repeatedly detonates the banal:
Adhesive tape, the last thing added to the bomb.
I could simply list the lines that glistened and pierced. I could try to put my finger on the promise of the line, the exact blend of chaos and order that makes this book sing even as it reminds me of the tin, atomic air, the militarization of domesticity, the path we are all locked into, and yet it is impossible to put down. Or at least to put down for long...

A stack of reading notes on yellow paper awaits the healing of my wrist. Meanwhile, I'm going back to Burger. You can find out more the author and text here, and you can read an excerpt here.
- lemonhound.blogspot.com/2006/07/mary-burger.html

An Apparent Event: A Second Story Books Anthology

December 2005

An Apparent Event brings together the nine chapbooks published by Second Story Books between 1998 and 2002.  I started Second Story Books after co-editing Proliferation magazine with Jay Schwartz and Chris Vitiello for five years.  Proliferation was our attempt to locate ourselves amidst the multiple, decentered practices of new writing that were our legacy and our context then, work informed by New York School, New Narrative, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, aleatory, visual, post-colonialist, feminist and a few dozen other practices.

In the course of editing Proliferation I found I was most interested in work that explored narrative, the representation of events in language.

Apparently, by all appearances, events are taking place.  We engage with life as if events are taking place, have taken place, will continue to—as if we exist in time, with changes occurring in time.  Narrative, the representation of events, of changes taking place in the experiential realm, permeates our understanding of and engagement with time.

Narrative exists in the tension between disbelief and its suspension.  The seduction of narrative is that it creates an experience of events in time, but that we are aware, in the midst of this experience, that what we are experiencing is a representation.  Narrative is not a window onto the world, a transcription of an interior monologue, or a faithful account of things as they happened, though it may assume any of these guises or others.  Narrative is a language event, through which we experience events taking place in time.

As participants in narrative, we have the power and the pleasure of being in more than one place at one time—or, of being at more than one time in one place. We engage with the events of narrative as changes taking place in time.  And, we engage with the narrative as a language artifact, we encounter the operations of the text and the ways in which the text creates representations.

It’s this multiple engagement, this simultaneity of representational and experiential time, that makes for the complex possibilities of narrative writing.

Is narrative an engagement with events, or an enactment of events?  Is our understanding of time, of events taking place in time, separable from our use of narrative to represent events in time?  Or, are all of our understandings of time, of events in time, ultimately instances of narrative?

How we understand the operations and assumptions of narrative is fundamental to how we define “reality”, how we decide what is relevant or significant—how we decide what anything means.

The writers collected here are in one way or another invested in the high stakes of portraying events in language.  They’re attentive to the malleable boundary between experience and representation, and to the consequences of their activities along that boundary.

These works enact strategies for self-reflexively examining the assumptions and consequences of narrative choices, and implicate readers in doing the same:

Renee Gladman (Not Right Now) makes a continual migration between “I” and “you” and “we” through a narration that fixes and unfixes its location in relation to self, other, and world in an unsettling rhythm.

Lauren Gudath (The Television Documentary) exploits the false stability and imperfect authority of documentary to examine the irrational, noncommunal origins of language.

Brenda Coultas (A Summer Newsreel) acts as a poet-archivist, gathering and interpreting artifacts of various pasts and examining the implications of her own acts of interpretation.

Jacques Debrot (Confuzion Comix) imitates scholarly authorial personas in works that satirize consumerist habits of writing and reading.

Avery Burns (A Duelling Primer) creates precise, intricate instructions and descriptions for locating “you” in space, in specific relation to an other who is opponent but also mirror.

Kristin Prevallet (Red) mimics the crisp, brusque sentences of crime fiction while eschewing plot machinery in favor of ambiguity about the nature of narration and of event itself.

Gregory Brooker (Spirit’s Measure) experiments with a compositional method that has prophetic origins but is here used to create to a secular Williams-esque collage of American language.

Camille Roy (Craquer) generates a loose-limbed yet exacting memoir of family and class identity that proceeds through relentless analysis of her own motives and strategies in telling this story.

My piece (The Boy Who Could Fly) is an effort to bring together far-flung narratives of heroic tragedy, to see how overlapping versions of that archetype refract and collapse in on one another.

Taken together, these works make a lumpy exquisite corpse, a mismatched set whose contingencies and peculiarities begin to suggest how many more possible ways there could be to understand event.


From Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative

An anthology of essays on theories of narrative practice, by forty-eight writers from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.  Co-edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott.
Published by Coach House Books, 2004.

When I got there (eventually, to San Francisco), I found there were other writers who, like me, were just then calling ourselves poets but doing a kind of writing that often looked like prose and talking a lot about narrative.

Narrative meant that you could be a person having experiences, and you could admit and affirm in writing that you, the writer, had experiences and thought about them and the meaning of them; that personhood itself, if a fiction, was no less useful for not being “true”, that in fact its very artifice made it a fruitful literary conceit; and that all this, the being, the experiencing, the thinking, the meaning, the artifice, could be the stuff of your work.

And, though personhood might be avowedly fictional, narrative was not the same thing as fiction, which insisted on wholesale invention (with resemblance to persons living or dead etc etc ritually denied); it was not the same thing as autobiography or memoir, with their adherence to what was (again, troublesomely) “true”.

We had started from the point of poetry (or migrated to it) because, I’d say, we were interested in the distillation of semantics, of texture and tone and image and rhythm and sound, the scrupulous attention—to the point of stall-out—to the operations of meaning and representation and power all afforded by the form called poem.  A poem allowed for a semantic self-examination that could become an end in itself, in a way that narrative forms—conventionally, at least—didn’t allow.

But the potentially closed circuit of semantic or material attentiveness in poetry also turned out to be a convention, a limitation that couldn’t support some kinds of meaning.  In particular, what I wanted from narrative were the tools for exploring being in time.  I needed writing about being a person among other people being in time—the knotty, sustained working-through, the confusion and thrill, the impossibility and necessity, of existing in a world with others.

Writers I knew then (in the 1990s) who were exploring the fulcrum between narrative and poetry had behind us the strenuous self-situating discourse of Language Poetry, the self-mining story telling of New Narrativists, and the inter-genre investigations of a variety of their contemporaries.  We knew these groups had battled one another, but for us the lines of difference they left behind were more like paths than walls.  New Narrative practice, interrogating the subject by exposing its simultaneous self-effacement and self-aggrandizement, by representing event or identity or experience while taking apart the materials of representation, looked like a counterpoint to Language Poetry, interrogating the semiotics of meaning and the materiality of language at the level of the sentence, the word, the phoneme.

The projects of my peers that have emerged since that time gamely recombine practices that were once (and are still, in many other venues) relegated to either poetry or prose.  Works by Betsy Andrews, Taylor Brady, Aja Couchois Duncan, Michael du Plessis, Renee Gladman, Rob Halpern, Laird Hunt, Pamela Lu, and Maggie Zurawsky, to name just a few, push us to understand that narrative can merge artifact and artifice and a deep awareness of the two.

Social identity, political argument, philosophical questioning, can mingle with travesty, delusion, fantasy, audacious claims to reality, among the media of image and description and figure and sound.  To break with the unexamined assumptions of the story, and to bring the poem out of its timeless solitude, call for open-ended conversation on what narrative writing can be.  This anthology is a conversation about such possibilities.

Razzle Dazzle Melanism
Traffic Signals
Movement Is Measure
Don't Repeat This
Ocean Blocks
Ocean Deer
Clean Streets Initiative
Mechanical Botanicals
At Home
The Nomad Series
The Bart Series
The CCA Series
The Oakland Museum Series

Frankly Explicable: A Conversation with Mary Burger

The art of poetics begins with the intersection of the visual and the unseen. Word gives way to image, image to thought, thought to inspiration.
As communicators, human beings desire to bring value to the exchange—something ambiguous in the visual art world, value. What holds meaning for one may not for another, and what inspires is highly subjective.
More than value, we search for meaning. Who are we? To what do we devote attention? On what do we spend our time?
The idea of categories amongst thought makes experience easily interpretable. But what of the things that meet and mingle? Where does communication end and poetry begin? How is experience cataloged as “art”?
Writer, visual artist, and environmental designer, Mary Burger is interested in cross-genrewriting that merges aspects of poetry, essay, and fiction. Her books include Then Go On (Litmus Press, 2012), a collection of lyric prose pieces, Sonny (Leon Works, 2005), a novella on the Trinity bomb test, and A Partial Handbook for Navigators (Interbirth Books, 2008), writings about geography and social space.
In this post, we’ll learn a bit about Mary’s approach to writing and visual art, and the pursuit of intersecting questions we call “experience.”
When you first approach a new work, what freedoms do you give yourself to explore with words?
“New pieces well up from any number of places.  I don’t put any restrictions on myself in exploring new pieces.  If a piece seems like it will keep going (many don’t!), I try to have a sense of its shape or motivation (which might, after the fact, be described as form and content.)  But those conceptions always change as a piece evolves.  For a piece to do anything interesting, I have to be in a state of continual discovery and redefinition.”
Your knowledge of literary criticism is one of your strengths as an editor, publisher—and also a writer. What, in your opinion, makes good writing? What elements of literary criticism do you employ when writing your own work and when reading others’ work?
“For me good writing is anything that allows me as a reader to be in a state of discovery—the same state I aspire to as a writer.”
Of your completed works, which do you feel is your greatest accomplishment and why?
“Two stock answers: no one can choose among their own children!  And, my newest work is always my favorite!
And a third thought: on some level everything I write is part of one lifelong investigation, so in that sense it’s all one long, varied work.”
How do you know when a poem, chapbook, or other piece of writing is “done”? (Is writing ever “done”?)
“There’s a combination of excitement and satisfaction when the work feels fresh and not over-worked.”
In an interview with Angel Dominquez, you mentioned that landscape architecture and design is “a time-based medium on the scale of seasons and years and generations and epochs.” How do you think this intersects with writing, and particularly poetry? How do you think that landscape architecture is like writing?

“Landscape architecture is like writing only in metaphorical or analogous ways.  Working with landscape involves understanding contexts, processes, consequences, ecology, economy, politics, etc—all terms that we can apply to writing, but building a park and writing a book are pretty different.  Making parallels between these activities helps us understand our assumptions about landscape, nature, or ecology, and helps us see the conceptual frameworks we use as writers.  But I think it’s important not to blur the definitions too much.”
You also have stated that you believe “soil has narrative, history, timespan.” What do you mean by this statement? In what ways do you feel this statement hints at a political context? Additionally, how does landscape architecture and urban design inform our daily experiences?
“We—people generally interested in the future of life—are starting to understand what soil scientists have long known: soil is not inert, it’s a living ecosystem.  Like air and water, soil is affected by human activity.  If we want soil to remain viable for sustaining life, we have to pay attention to its processes.
Entire professions are devoted to exploring how landscape or urban design inform our experiences—I’ll simply say I’ve always been interested in understanding the stories of the places around me, how they came to be the way they are.”
You mention that as a writer, you are always immersed in research. How does research inform your writing and how do you balance the time between research and writing?
“Writing for me is a process of pursuing questions I’m interested in.  Reading and writing go hand-in-hand in that process, of posing questions, exploring them, and finding new questions.”
Your current project Red Dust Tangle also looks at environment as experience and how we find our place in that environment. I’m intrigued by the passage:
In the way that the flat, regular street grid accommodates movement equally in any direction, the houses, built square to the edges of the building envelope, made the streets seem like landscapes without mysteries.  But the pervasive alleyways made a nameless second grid that shadowed every street and harbored what couldn’t fit in the named places. 
A shadow is a ruin of the original.  The clean edges reappear as a monstrosity, as an alien erupts from within.  It was the figure-ground battle, one always struggling to overtake the other.  

What do you hope this passage evokes for readers? What message are you conveying about environment, experience and the intersection of these things?
“For me, these lines are about looking for relationships between the frankly explicable and the mysterious or the elusive.  The built, spatial world is the material setting where experience takes place.  We ascribe meaning to it as it shapes us.”
This work also includes images of the labyrinth, compartmentalization, passageways, order, and similar structural elements. What comments are being made about the urban infrastructure in this work?  What does it indirectly say about the natural environment? How is this imagery used as a metaphor for something deeper?
“I got interested in the labyrinth as a place of intentional obfuscation.  Generally, the conundrums or problems we run into in life don’t have specific authors or solutions.  A labyrinth implies a designer.  In this narrative, I think the labyrinth may be about the ways that we construe our own agency as we encounter the various challenges and opportunities of living.  The urban scene, the environment are…contexts for living.”
When you hear the phrase “everything is connected” what do you think about? How do you think that the phrase “everything is connected” relates to the craft of writing? Art? Landscape architecture or other?
“I think of Juliana Spahr’s book This Connection of Everyone With Lungs.  Also I think of what I know about interspecies dependency, which is basically the story of all life.  Anything made—writing, art, design—comes out of a specific context, and the meaning of anything rests on how we understand its relationship to context.”
- kellylydick.com/blog_everythingisconnected/tag/mary-burger/

Time-Stopping, Points of Friction, and Other Narrative Events: an interview with Mary Burger

Writing available for download (PDF files):
Talking About the Universe as if It Existed
Some New Opinions on Matter
The Boy Who Could Fly
All New Yorker Stories
Interview with Jacques Debrot
Esp. in being an entrance, a passageway, a constriction, or a narrowed part
Laugh of the Larynx
Your Golden Gate

San Francisco Bay Guardian (review of Biting the Error)

Mary Burger is a writer, editor, and publisher. Her books include the following: Sonny (Leon Works, 2005), The Boy Who Could Fly (Second Story Books, 2002), Thin Straw That I Suck Life Through (Melodeon, 2000), and Then Go On (Litmus Press, 2012) amongst others. She is co-editor of the anthology Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, and of Narrativity. She also edits Second Story Books.  She lives in Oakland, California. Her work may be found at http://www.maryburger.com